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Is it possible to have an original thought?

  1. Dec 18, 2009 #1
    Being almost certain that this topic must have been discussed, I did a search but found nothing, so I’ll pose the question again. Given all the billions of people who now and have ever existed, is it possible to have an original thought?

  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 18, 2009 #2
    Hi Tom - I'm actually not familiar with the question as you posed it. There are a few things to consider in this question though, and there are a few subjects that it may touch on.

    The first thing I would ask is how would you define an original thought? Surely many people have had the thought that 2+2=4, but do each of use experience the same thing exactly when we hold that thought in our minds? If you believe that minds depend explicitly on brain states, then I would argue that you and I don't think of this question in the exact same way. We each have different configurations in our brains, so we will have slightly different brain states and experiences. Defined this way, two people without identical brains can never have the same thought.

    If we accept this exact notion of a thought, then I don't know if it's even possible for the same thought to exist twice. If brains are made of matter, and matter can be located in a continuum of locations and isn't restricted to discrete states, then it is awfully difficult to perceive how two systems as complex as brains might ever develop to be exactly the same for a period of time. The entire universe, influencing the brain directly or indirectly through gravity etc, may have to be perfectly identical for the same thought to reoccur.

    This might start to sound ridiculous, but if you don't define what counts as an original thought so exactly, I think you will run into the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sorites_paradox" [Broken]. You will have trouble drawing the line between original and unoriginal thoughts, and may not be able to do so unambiguously and without being arbitrary.

    The answer, of course, is that it all depends on your assumptions. We don't know how thoughts work exactly. Assuming that identical thoughts only occur in identical brains, which may be quite the assumption, I think the answer to your question is that every thought is most likely original :smile:.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  4. Dec 18, 2009 #3
    Yup….my question was much too ambiguous. Let me set the stage. The question was prompted by a discussion with my 15 year old son. We were talking about why certain decisions are reserved for parents, and while I was talking I could see in his eyes the same thoughts I had at his age and in similar circumstances….”my parents are old-fashioned, they don’t understand me, when I have kids I’ll let them do whatever they want,” etc. When I told him I knew what thoughts he was having and listed them, he acknowledged I was correct and seemed surprised that I could read his mind. It is in this context I asked the question.

    Does this clarify or muddy the waters (and has somebody asked “does this clarify or muddy the waters” before me)?

  5. Dec 18, 2009 #4
    Sure there are high level thoughts that most people in modern cultures experience such as your example. However these thoughts are commonly outwardly expressed, internally they are all absolutely unique to each person. Thoughts are surrounded by oceans of secondary supporting thoughts, emotions, and perspectives which I think make those thoughts unique. It's like saying, Jon likes the cat and Mary likes the cat. On a high level they are the same, but such a description is not useful because how they each like the cat go so much deeper than a simple statement. So you can say one person has the same thoughts as another, but really they see and feel those thoughts uniquely. So I think there is a danger in assuming you can read your son perfectly.
  6. Dec 18, 2009 #5
    Keeping with the brain state requirement for identical or the same thoughts, I'd say that you two had similar thoughts. Similarity is a vague concept that can't be bounded without being arbitrary, per the sorites paradox. For most philosophers that makes it uninteresting and places it in the realm of the subjective - it depends sociologically on the unspoken rules of language etc.

    Without looking at the boundary, we can still probably talk about extreme cases that aren't so sensitive to where the line is drawn. If we think about academic research in say, physics, I think it's probably safe to say that Einstein's theory of general relativity was original. Schrodinger's idea to formulate quantum mechanics in his wave equation we can probably also agree was original.

    The best we can often do in areas like ethics, where we can't agree on or prove an underlying law, is to try to work backwards from individual cases we agree on. I think you would be hard pressed to come up with a definition of an "original thought" that doesn't count the above examples as original though - at least how we commonly use the terms and without positing some complicated metaphysics.

    I'll be sure to remember your argument/point for my kids :tongue:.

    Edit: I'm still with Greg if you are really asking about having the same thoughts though.
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2009
  7. Dec 18, 2009 #6
    I guess I tend to look at things as simply as possible. To me if the wording and intent of two thoughts are the same, they are the same thought. Okay…let me define same. If Jon says he likes the cat, and Mary says she likes the cat, in my book both have had the same thought. Both understand what each other means. In fact, if Jon said it first, Mary might have followed with…”Jon, I was just thinking that same thing.” Is it necessary for Mary to ask Jon precisely what he means by ‘like’ (or ‘I’ or ‘cat’ for that matter), or how deeply he feels about the cat, or what synaptic path was followed during the thought process, or how does he feel now that he’s said it? If we can’t assume Jon and Mary, by their statements, had the same thought, how is it possible to even have meaningful discussion?

  8. Dec 18, 2009 #7
    How do they know though? How do you know that what looks like red for you doesn't look like green for someone else? You only ever learn the meaning of "red" by pointing at something, or indirectly by comparison to other colors you've been pointed to.

    When we put together all the hand waving and grunting we get something useful, but it's far from exact. Unambiguous and exact conveyance of thoughts is impossible precisely because we can only assume what the other person means by their expressions. In math/computer terms, communication of thoughts is necessarily "lossy."

    There are also theories of meaning/language closer to what you've described. They don't seem to work with a physical brain-dependent theory of mind though.
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2009
  9. Jan 7, 2010 #8

    Before I respond: I goggled this topic today. I'm surprised and delighted that such a recent forum post was one of the first results. I am dismayed that I did not find something more formal written on this subject. Any suggestions?

    First, let me say that I am a moron, and I have no business making any claims of my own on such a lofty question. But this is the internet after all, so there is of course no decorum. Secondly, for my part, I consider myself a (amateur) scientist and a (mediocre) artist. And if you ever wanted a paradox, that is one, let me assure you.

    (1) I find it interesting, that you would suggest that subjectivity is uninteresting in the context of philosophy. While I understand what you were saying, I would ask: If objective reality even exists, are you saying that you, or anyone, can perceive objective reality? Do I need examples to argue this? I don't have an opinion one way or another, but I certainly have a hard time finding Truth in my life.

    While these people certainly were more brilliant, and probably worked harder than anyone I know - they wouldn't have been able to come up with those allegedly original ideas if they were not standing on the shoulders of those who came before them. WHAT was it that lead these men to think the way they did, when they did and allowed them to put together the brilliant ideas which made them famous and changed science forever? Were these COMPLETELY NEW ideas which just came to them out of (who knows what) or was it the sum of their influences?

    The last question is the one I posed to my room mate this morning when I dropped him off. And it was related to Art, not science.

    In art, or as an artist, one of the best compliments you can get is, "Wow, that's very original." What the speaker is saying is, "I've never seen this before." Now, if the speaker had seen all the art in the world...... would they EVER be able to give that compliment again?

    Most artists in any millieu will quickly and willingly tell you who their influences were. So, I have no problem saying that most art which seems so original, is actually just a 'mutation' of the influences of previous artsists.

    My question is: Is it possible to create (or think) something completely new, completely devoid of any outside influence?

    Note: this reminds me of the debate on whether true altruism is possible.

    To me, the idea of an original thought seems akin to the theories surrounding the beginning of the universe. A spark of something, from nothing? Doesn't really make any sense, does it? At least by the rules we've been using to define what we believe is real.

    Edit again:
    I don't think I can define what I mean by "original thought" but an example might be, if a mouse looked up at the sun and thought, "hmm... I feel like I might be on a big rock that's orbiting that bright thing..." This would be an original thought because it had NO frame of reference; there were no thought or influences leading up to that idea. There were no mice who came before him that were like, "Well, geometry blah blah blah....". It was completely out of the blue and original. Certainly, this is not probable for mice - However, is it possible for us?

    Edit AGAIN:
    The evidence doesn't look promising if we think back through human history. Traditionally, we have answered new questions with answers which are just adapted from our own experience. For example, who came up with the mythical creature the Centaur? Even the first person who came up with this - is this really original? 2 halves of stuff you've already seen doesn't make a new thing.
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2010
  10. Jan 11, 2010 #9
    He looked quickly at her in astonishment at her statement of his own thought. “How did you think that, dear?”
    “I don’t know. Why?”
    “Because I was thinking it at that moment”…..

    Chapter 11 - “To a God Unknown” – John Steinbeck
  11. Jan 11, 2010 #10

    Ivan Seeking

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    Perhaps yours is an original thought? :biggrin:
  12. Jan 11, 2010 #11
    No one has ever accused me of having an original thought. :redface:
  13. Jan 12, 2010 #12
    I'm not sure about the philosophy behind this, but it's an interesting question. Here's my take:

    Let's use the scientific community as an example, although my line of thinking applies to art, mathematics, anything really. We all know that "new" ideas are fairly common in science, although most of them are fairly minor as far as implications on science as a whole. However, we also know that every few decades or so, on average, someone comes up with some crazy new model (or idea). I think the truth or soundness of the model is irrelevant for this discussion. My point is that quantum theory, for example, was a completely original thought, from which many other original thoughts stemmed (interpretations). Not sure if this is the kind of example you're looking for, as I skimmed though the topic without reading each post fully.

    I think two questions need to be answered in order to answer the original question.
    1) What is your definition of original? Something completely new, or can it be a new aspect of an existing idea?
    2) Do you mean is it possible today to think of an original idea? Or do you mean at any point in history (this would be more philosophical than if you just meant today)?
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